How the Truth Gets Framed by the Camera

LOUIS P. MASUR – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Copyright The Chronicle of Higher Education
Think about the photographs in our lives, the ones we keep on our desks, load on Facebook, take with cellphones and digital cameras, and attach to e-mail messages. Although the word may now be out of fashion, for nearly 100 years these images were known as snapshots. That term, however, covers some very different kinds of photographs — and some very different meanings they have for us. Indeed, in recent years, scholars and curators have been drawn to unpacking those meanings in a thriving study and display of images.
It should not surprise us that this subject has become a growing focus of interest. There has been a revolution in the past decade in digital imaging and visual technology. We live in a world of pixels — picture elements — not only on our monitors but also in our everyday lives. Ours is as much a visual culture as a written or oral one, and of late, images, more than print and speech, have had the greatest impact: Visualize Katrina, Abu Ghraib, 9/11.
All such images are, in effect, snapshots. The word is derived from shooting quickly with little or no aim. The catalog that accompanies a new exhibition, “The Art of the American Snapshot,” which runs through the end of the year at the National Gallery of American Art, in Washington, explains that snapshots became popular in the 1890s, with the invention of the Kodak camera and new technologies for the reproduction of images in newspapers and books.
The National Gallery’s story is thus in part the story of Kodak and technical improvements in camera and film, from the Brownie, in 1900, to the “modern Kodak,” in 1927, to the introduction of Kodacolor, in 1942, and the Instamatic camera, in 1963. Competing with Kodak was the Leica, a mass-market 35-mm camera introduced in 1925, and the Polaroid Land Camera, released in 1948.
But, as the catalog also tells us, snapshots “exert an undeniable power,” and the exhibition, which surveys the genre from the 1880s to the 1970s, makes clear why. It is not merely the sheer number of the mainly private, everyday pictures that makes them compelling. (According to Sarah Greenough, one of the curators, as of 1977 nearly nine billion snapshots were taken each year, more than double the rate of 10 years earlier.) Rather it is the way the snapshots of each era capture particular moments and yet also transcend time.
Gazing at the images gathered here, which come from the collection of Robert E. Jackson, an art historian and businessman, I was struck by the recurrence of themes: domesticity, laughter, clowning, leisure activities. Through the decades, Americans hide their faces, cavort at the beach, take portraits of their children, and are caught unawares, asleep, or sometimes in acts of intimacy. Comparisons across the century become suggestive of larger cultural changes: Three swimming pictures, from the 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s, provide an opportunity to think about shifts from companionship to solitude, from self-reliance to consumption. One portrays two naked friends with their dog; one shows a swimmer in the water from the neck down; one displays a red-headed woman lying on a float in her backyard pool.
I am also struck by how our memories and vision of the past are inseparable from the form of the prints. I stare at the sepia-toned, fading images from the 1920s and see my parents and grandparents; I look at the serrated-edge prints of the 1950s, with month and date stenciled in the margin, and see my brother and me. Each photograph is personal, and yet for each era, every photograph is also in some essential way the same.
Very different, less private snapshots are the pictures taken by photojournalists, which can reach millions of viewers. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, professors of communication, are interested in the transmission of social knowledge. They argue in No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy that iconic images like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Joe Rosenthal’s “Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi” are essential to a “liberal-democratic citizenship” that demonstrates “the relationship of the abstract individual to the impersonal state.” Thus “Migrant Mother” becomes a brief for social welfare, and “Flag Raising” a testament to the American character.
Such images, however, are not fixed in meaning. Iconic photographs become so for a variety of reasons — their composition, the way they evoke other images in our visual memory, their impact at the moment — and they are also put to various purposes, become clichés, or are drained of original understandings. An icon of poverty like the stark, bleak portrait of Lange’s migrant mother is enlisted in a television campaign for the good life in California when a woman in a red convertible drives down Rodeo Drive and we see the image among the palm trees, a relic clearly from the past; a flag-raising mutates from civic piety to slapstick humor in an episode of The Simpsons when Bart plants the flag at a beach party.
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